E. coli is sign of a sick system: My days working at Alberta's XL meat-packing plant

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The major recall of E. coli contaminated meat from XL doesn't surprise me in the slightest.

There may be some substance to calls for greater regulation and the resignation of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. But there is a deeper problem that no one in the elite media seems capable of addressing: the sweatshop working conditions at XL. I know it from personal experience.

Like many New Brunswick men, I went west at 19 to seek my fortune. One of my many jobs was in Alberta's now infamous XL Foods plant, which advertised "1,100 positions available." If you could wield a knife and obey basic commands, you started at $8.50 an hour for a 40-hour week.

XL specialized in workers within arm's reach of homelessness, and had a reputation as one of the only places that would hire someone right out of prison. Onsite housing resembled jail cells, with 20 five-by-eight foot rooms in each of six trailers. The trailers were enclosed by 10-foot chain-link fences and there was security guarding the gate 24/7.

These living conditions provided ample opportunity to get to know my co-workers. Alcoholism and smoking (pot as well as tobacco) were rampant. Some of my co-workers had struggled with crack addiction. A substantial portion were immigrants and transnational migrant workers. I lived with folks from Somalia, South Africa, the Philippines, Cambodia and Mexico, and of course lots of Maritimers.

Working conditions created high turnover, meaning XL was perpetually hiring. Nurses were onsite for frequent acute injuries. Even if you avoided serious injury, it was just a matter of time before tendonitis or some other chronic condition would flair up, terminating your "career." XL's business practices conformed to the sweatshop model of profit perfectly: collect the poorest, most vulnerable workers in society, work them as hard as possible until their very capacity for work gives out, then throw them on the junk heap and hire new fodder for the mill. These practices hurt consumers as well as workers.

Allow me to illustrate. I worked in the ground beef department, cutting open improperly sealed packages and dumping the meat back into the grinder. The little metal clip and plastic packaging were dumped into the garbage. When the plastic and metal slipped into the grinder one day, I immediately found the foreman to stop production. We spent five minutes fishing the plastic and metal out of the machine.

When production resumed, he grabbed me by my collar and said, "This line never stops! If you do that again you're fired!" I would like to pretend that when it happened again, I experienced a moral dilemma and thought about some kid biting into a burger and spending the rest of the day at the dentist getting his shattered teeth rebuilt, but I didn't. No one noticed, so I kept my mouth shut and kept my job.

In the choice between eating and doing the right thing, eating wins every time. I can remember a co-worker whose job was testing for E. coli complaining that the foreman would not let him do his job properly, and would ship meat that had not been tested. It would be easy to judge the foreman and say he was unethical and a bully. But if you look a little deeper, he had a quota to meet. If he didn't get a certain amount of product out the door each shift he would be fired. Dad can't pay for college unless he has a job.

So the point is this: the very structure of the XL model ensures that all sorts of corners get cut. Production demands are such that health and safety come second to productivity. When workers are barely able to make ends meet, and can lose their jobs at a moment's notice, well, these conditions do not breed moral courage.

As this scandal plays out maybe some heads will roll and maybe some new government inspectors will be hired. But it is my firm assertion that until we ask the question, "Is there a better way to organize production?” these outbreaks will continue well into the future. It would be totally irrational to suppose otherwise.

 

Christopher Walker writes for the NB Media Coop, where this article first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission. 

Photo: NB Media Coop

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